There were the traditional meetings, speeches and luncheons. The familiar balloon arch and giant, purple mammoth. Cheers, honking cars and heartfelt hugs. The air was filled with excitement about a new adventure about to begin.
The first day of Orientation 2021 on Aug. 25 was of course colored by and altered in light of the pandemic. Amherst’s latest group of new students began their college careers with COVID-19 tests on the tennis courts. Face masks, worn inside and, in many cases, outside, were ubiquitous. Per Amherst’s pandemic protocols, families said goodbye on the Quad, instead of in residence hall rooms.
But the students took it all in stride. That was no surprise to Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Matt McGann: In his office, the new students had already earned a reputation for being resilient and unflappable. Finally seeing the undergraduates in person reminded McGann of how they’d persevered through more than a year of COVID-19-related health crises; hybrid or remote learning; and so many cancelations: proms, athletics seasons, performances, graduation ceremonies.
“These students have endured so much disruption—educational, financial, medical and more—on their college journey,” McGann says. “I couldn't be happier to see them taking their first steps on campus and starting this new chapter of their lives.”
McGann notes with pride that the new students represent by many measures the widest range of backgrounds, life experiences and points of view of any group of newcomers in the history of the College. Especially notable is that, for the first time in Amherst College history, more than half of the new class—51%—self-identify as domestic students of color. An additional 12% of students are international. Achieving this level of diversity is unprecedented not only at Amherst but also among its peer institutions, McGann adds. (It was also the subject of an Inside Higher Ed article.)
“Our students are united by their joy in learning, yet at the same time have such different perspectives to share,” he says. “So much of the value of the Amherst education comes from the students themselves, and what each student can learn as they meet students who bring different ideas to our campus.”
In an address to new students on move-in day, McGann described the College’s rigorous admissions process and reinforced to the students that their unique perspectives and achievements were precisely why they were invited to enroll—that they were “not admitted by mistake.” He told the group that he suspected many were struggling with the phenomenon of “imposter syndrome” (doubting one’s abilities and feeling like a fraud), just as he once did. “Don’t let that voice in your head fool you—we wanted each one of you to be a part of the Amherst community.”
After his speech, McGann speculated about the students’ days ahead, and predicted that the sky is the limit. In a nod to the College’s Bicentennial this year, he said: “When the world looks back at this class at Amherst’s 400th-year anniversary 200 years from now, I know they will have made a real difference in the world.”
Here are some facts and figures about this year’s newest students.